Chartering the ‘State of Dade’

Dade County is about as far out of Georgia as you can get in Georgia.

Dade County, 1864. From Lloyd’s Topographical Map of Georgia and GeorgiaInfo.

Mountains all but isolate it from anywhere else in the state. In the days of segregation, its black school, Hooker, was too small to support a high school. Instead of going somewhere else in Georgia, it was easiest to transport these children to Howard High of Chattanooga, Tenn.

When Dade High’s gym burned in 1951, it perhaps became the only Georgia school to play home games in another state, as the school booked the gym at John A. Patten School, located near Chattanooga, to use until a new facility could be built in Trenton.

Dade County is sometimes referred to as the “State of Dade” or “Independent State of Dade.”

Legend has it that prior to the Civil War, the county seceded from Georgia when the state did not secede from the United States quickly enough.

The legend has been repeated often throughout the years, to the point that even Dade County these days is itself weary of the story.

Its official website features a piece by Robin Ford Wallace, which it said originally ran in the Dade Sentinel in 2010:

Dade County, sick and tard of Georgia’s shillyin’ and shallyin’ at the beginning of the Civil War, seceded individually from the Union in 1860, declaring its independence not only from the U.S. but from a state that couldn’t make up its mind. Thus the feisty little county was a sovereign nation – the Independent State of Dade – for 85 years until, in a frenzy of patriotism toward the end of World War II, it rejoined the nation on July 4, 1945.

It’s a nice story and it makes for a cute T-shirt. However, it has a flaw, common with legends: “It probably didn’t happen,” said Allen Townsend of Wildwood.

Several other websites have called the legend of its secession hogwash. Wallace went on to say in the piece that geography likely created the “State of Dade” nickname.

There is little doubt it did.

But what are the origins of the nickname and how did the Civil War legend get started?

Quite possibly the first reference to the State of Dade comes from Augusta’s Daily Chronicle and Sentinel in a December 23, 1847 issue.

The bill to amend the militia laws of this State was lost; also the bill to appropriate $2000 for laying out and constructing a road across Lookout Mountain. So the good people of Dade will have to remain cooped up til another Legislature convenes, if not longer. You will remember that this bill was passed in the House some days ago, after considerable opposition. Walled up on either hand, as are the people of Dade, by the Lookout and Raccoon Mountains, it becomes necessary for them when they desire to visit the adjacent counties, to go out at the Northern or Southern end of the valley which their county embraces, either into Tennessee or Alabama, and thence back in to Georgia. Under such circumstances, unless there is an appropriation made at no very distant day, I think they would be justifiable in seceding from the State and forming for themselves a separate Republic, to be known as the State of Dade!

No doubt the end is a bit of humor, hyperbole about Dade’s condition.

It couldn’t have been too far off from how Dade Countians felt about their status. Aside from the examples of how it was more convenient for the local schools to go to Tennessee for their needs, basic travel to the rest of Georgia was difficult well into the 1900s.

Barring local roads, Dade did not have a real state highway link to the rest of the state until 1938 or 1939.

1937-04 Dade
Dade County’s isolation, as shown on an official Georgia highway map from April 1937.

The September 1938 version of the state highway map shows Georgia Highway 2 inching from LaFayette some 11.2 miles northwest. In July 1939, the graded, but not paved link, was complete to US 11. Strangely, the map still said 11.2 miles from LaFayette. LaFayette-to-US 11 was partially paved by October 1940 and completed by January 1941.

Dade’s isolation also was specifically highlighted by the Daily Chronicle and Sentinel in 1848, when the paper went looking for opinions about political status. The November 17 edition said they had received a report from every county in the state – except Dade. The Daily Chronicle said their results were coming through their sources and exchanges of information.

No one, apparently, could penetrate Dade’s borders.

Dade County was established in December 1837, entirely out of Walker County. GALILEO’s Georgia Info gives the southwest boundaries established at that time as passing as close to the top of Look Out (Lookout) Mountain as possible. Walker itself had only been created in 1833, not long after the Cherokee were forcibly extracted from the land.

1847-12-23 Daily Chronicle and Sentinel
The first known reference to the “State of Dade,” from the December 23, 1847 Daily Chronicle and Sentinel of Augusta.

Milledgeville’s and Savannah’s papers diligently reported on actions of the legislature.

In December 1835, a bill was read for the first time by a Mr. Hardin, asking for “the relief of inhabitants west of the Look Out Mountain, in the county of Walker.” (Federal Union, Dec. 18). Currently, no information has been discovered as to why.

More than one attempt was made to form Dade.

In November 1835, a petition was made to the legislature from citizens of Walker and Floyd counties, “praying for the formation of a new county.” It was looked at unfavorably by Mr. Swain of the committee on petitions, but Mr. Walthal said he would propose the new counties. In November 1836, a Mr. Faris(h) asked the legislature to create a county west of Lookout Mountain. A year later, Faris proposed it again and it was accepted.

Why would they pray for a new county? Quite possibly because administration was likely a nightmare. Floyd’s original northern boundary extended to modern Summerville. Its southern boundary was nearly half of what is now Polk County. Walker was a monster even though it was the product of a split itself, from Murray County in 1833. Court would have been near impossible to reach for citizens west of Lookout Mountain.

By the mid-1860s, “State of Dade” was not uncommon in referring to the county.

From the March 13, 1862 Southern Confederacy (Atlanta): “We also had a pleasant visit from our friend, Col. Robert H. Tatum, from the ‘State of Dade.'”

Weekly Columbus Enquirer, September 8, 1863: “The last we heard they [Union Army] were in the ‘State of Dade,’ ‘looking three ways for Sunday’ towards Wills Valley, Chattanooga and Rome.”

The Weekly Atlanta Intelligencer, July 4, 1866, in an article about the wheat crop yield in Dade. It ends: “Well done for the ‘State of Dade!'”

Though Colonel Tatum was mentioned by the Southern Confederacy – and this won’t be the final time he’s mentioned – two of these three references were not political. It was merely a slightly more descriptive term for Dade County, much like a reference to “Hotlanta” or the “Rose City” for Thomasville.

So how did any of any of the Civil War stuff get started?

That part is much harder to narrow down and its origin may not ever be determined. Thanks to the magic of the internet and newspaper digitization, it can be determined that one version of the tale was out there by 1886.

A long article in the July 17, 1886 Washington (D.C.) Evening Star, titled “The Georgia Prison Camps,” described the convict lease system and in particular, conditions at a prison in Dade County. Dade’s prisoners mined coal. Conditions, said the Evening Star’s correspondent, were similar to Siberia.

But at the beginning of the piece, there was a brief description of Dade’s geographical circumstances, which contained the line, “during the war of rebellion they openly receded from the State of Georgia and the Confederacy, and managed to secure a freedom which they virtually maintain to-day.”

An abbreviated version of the story and that quote ended up being printed in many other papers across America.

In the quote, the story is flipped. Dade did not want to be in the Confederacy, insinuates the Evening Star.

The Evening Star article run in 1886 may be the earliest version of the Civil War myth, but Dade’s status would be flipped in the others, from a county that didn’t want to be in the Confederacy or in the state to one devoted to the Confederates.

The earliest version of that story might have appeared in 1934.

Credited in the April 26, 1934, Brunswick News to the Associated Press, it is quite possible the story originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal or Atlanta Constitution.

As recounted by General M.J. Yeomans, then the attorney general in Georgia, a Mr. Tatum was said to have told the Georgia Legislature in 1860 that the state could do what it wanted during the secession crisis, but Dade was seceding.

The article stated that Tatum then returned home and “a resolution was passed seceding from both the Union and the state of Georgia.”

The Associated Press article said that this resolution was lost in a courthouse fire (conveniently).

The courthouse fire part is easy to look up. Dade’s courthouse was burned by Union troops in 1863. But were there any resolutions there to burn?

The Tatum in this case was Robert H. Tatum, a man actively involved in Dade’s Civil War pursuits.

Tatum was definitely in Milledgeville, the site of Georgia’s capital in 1860. A poem from January 10th’s Southern Recorder described him as a man who made ugly faces.

In the November 20, 1860 Southern Recorder, he was wanting to arm volunteers and cited the few guns available in his home county as an example.

Both stories can be disproved by Tatum’s and Dade’s actions during the war as Dade was as much part of Georgia as it was before the war and after it ended.

The (Milledgeville) Confederate Union, continued to list Dade representatives in the house and senate. The November 17, 1863 issue lists an H.J. Sprayberry as the senator-elect of District 41, composed of Walker, Dade and Catoosa. L. Sutton was the representative-elect of Dade.

As the Civil War began, Milledgeville’s Southern Recorder on April 23, 1861 had a list of Georgia’s known volunteer companies. The Lookout Dragoons had been organized in Dade County under J.G. Hanna. The Dragoons would become part of the 6th Georgia Volunteer Infantry, serving all the way to the end.

Tatum was still participating in debates in Milledgeville in 1863. In the November 18, 1862 Confederate Union, the man who supposedly led Dade to secede from Georgia, was begging the state to allow the W&A Railroad to deliver free corn to soldiers’ families in Dade. A couple of weeks later, in the December 9, 1862, Confederate Union, he wanted the state to appropriate $25,000 to remove women and children from the county in case it was invaded.

Newspaper text translation for searching is iffy, especially in that era, but not a peep about Robert Tatum and the supposed secession popped up on various search sites – both state and national – prior to the Associated Press bit from 1934.

There was even another myth, one that appeared before the 1886 Evening Star story.

The August 15, 1877, the Rome Weekly Courier reprinted from the Chattanooga Times what it called the origin of the name.

This commonwealth owes its existence to the following circumstances: During the canvass of 1850-51, when McDonald was running as the secession candidate for Governor of Georgia and Cobb as the Constitutional Union candidate, a large meeting of Union men was held in the wareroom adjoining the storehouse of Benj. Hawkins, in Trenton; the present county seat.

The following resolution, drafted by Julius Beeman, on the head of a whisky barrel, was then offered and unanimously adopted:

Resolved, “That in the event of the election of Charles J. McDonald, Governor of Georgia, and Georgia secedes from the Union, Dade county will secede from Georgia and declare herself an independent State.”

That’s a bit of a twist on the old legend that it seceded during the Civil War. But as has been noted, there was already a reference to “State of Dade” in 1847. Even if it was merely a suggestion, another paper used the term in print before the above story took place – even if the above story was 100 percent accurate.

And we have another reference to “State of Dade” that precedes it as well.

The February 14, 1850 Daily Morning News (Savannah) used it in a general sense. The way it was tossed about seems to indicate it was an established term.

“The Bill reorganizing the Congressional Districts, which had been debated yesterday [Feb. 11], and with some unkind allusions last night, was taken up this morning on its passage. The Whigs en masse (with the exception of Mr. Jenkin of Richmond,) accompanied by the so-called Democrat from the State of Dade, left the Hall in a perfect stampede, creating such confusion in the Senate, that that body adjourned to 3 o’clock this evening…”

Other references to the county have been found in newspapers from 1853 and 1856. None have been political references.

The Daily Morning News article predates the events referred to by the Weekly Courier. Those events swirled in the aftermath of the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California to the United States as a free state and left the future of slavery in the territories of Utah and New Mexico up in the air. Additionally, the slave trade was banned in Washington, D.C., but the Fugitive Slave Law strengthened. The compromise tilted the U.S. government towards the free states, leaving slave states uneasy.

Georgia had to figure out what to do, whether to threaten secession again or tentatively support its nation. McDonald, a two-time former governor, ran on a secession ticket against Cobb, who favored staying put. The New Georgia Encyclopedia said the result was a landslide; Cobb won by 18,500 votes.

Other sources not specifically named in above text: Federal Union – Nov. 20, 1835; Southern Recorder – Nov. 18, 1836; The Dade County Times – Jan. 11, 1951.

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